Notes Towards Day 18 (Th, Mar. 22): What Henrietta Lacks

Anne Dalke's picture



playing with genre: HL in cartoon form,
from The K Chronicles and Th(ink) Website

I. coursekeeping

labs as spaces to try out and practice method....

think about this re: your next set of webevents,
not due til Apr. 20th (but cf. kobieta's Prezi)?

Tuesday:
reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,
Parts I & II ("Life" and "Death"); for Thursday,
we'll read the remainder, Part III: " Immortality";
if you don't/can't read it all, be sure to sample amply
each of the 3 sections, and to think about structure:
how do the parts fit together? what makes this non-fiction?
(and do we care?) how does this form (and your experience)
differ from that of the BBC special we're about to discuss?

we also agreed that @ least some of us would
"get the story another way" by watching
Law and Order "Immortal," dir. Jim McKay. TV episode, 2010. 60 minutes--
how are we going to access this?

II. how to get from A Game of You to Henrietta Lacks....?
from graphic narrative to documentary film?
(in search of more explicit framing:
anchored in the "real," physical world?)

how did you get from A) to B)?

can we get there via the bridge of responsibility?
froggies315: What I think I’m trying to say is that--in some
convoluted from the physical world into the dream world and
then back to physical world kind of way--Barbie is responsible
for Wanda’s death.

via the bridge of
Memory and Forgetting?
(w/ Joseph LeDoux and Jonathan Lehrer)
most of us think of memory as a filing cabinet,
a physical trace left in your brain:
but we actually "build a memory," as an act of cellular construction,
building a bridge over a chasm, connecting one memory to another

we can erase old memories, and memories while they are being created,
because each memory is a new creation, re-built anew, an act of imagining,
always changing: there are no "real" memories, no substrata, no secret vault,
but only our most recent recollections; no memory is verifiably true-->
and the more you remember, the more it is about you, the less about what actually happened…

as soon as anything happens it starts diverging, on a synaptic level, in each of our brains
the most honest memories are of those amnesiacs, who cannot remember
the more you use a memory, the more you will re-create/falsify it…

stories of people constructing experiences, made to believe that
traumatic things happened (which didn't)
"the fact of the matter is that memories are malleable"
(music so richly organized that it remains, for an amnesiac?)

III. The Way of All Flesh, dir. Adam Curtis for BBC, 1997

the video is described several times in Skloot's text;
see p. 75--" like he was telling a ghost story that just might be true" --
and there's a description, too, of all the recordings that didn't
make it into the documentary (p. 309).

I had asked you to think about
how the documentary was "formed,"

what different dimensions make up the show,
why is it shaped the way it is,

how it directs your experience,  
what  its "point" is, and
what is not integrated/unclear to you....

let's go 'round and give that report,
cf'ing all our experiences of the film

WHY does the film use "Laura's theme song" from Dr. Zhivago?
why is it framed by poetry?? performed?

title from a 1903 novel by Samuel Butler,
attacking Victorian-era hypocrisy
(ambiguous ref: either religious or sexual....)

a euphemism for death = the fate of all living things-->
and a misquotation from the Bible:
"to go the way of all the earth"  (I Kings 2:2; Joshua 22:14);
cf. "And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come
before me...." (Genesis 6:13).


In Christianity, the word "flesh" is used in English
as a metaphor to describe sinful tendencies....

focus on the failed science, inevitability of death?
(w/ family as subplot?)


IV. The genre (all quotes from Bill Nichols,
Introduction to Documentary, Indiana, 2001):

A. Institutional Framework
"To remind viewers of the construction of the reality we behold,
of the creative element in John Grierson's famous definition of
documentary as "the creative treatment of actuality," undercuts
the very claim to truth and authenticity on which the documentary
depends....By suppressing this question, the institutional framework
for documentary suppresses much of the complexity in the relationships
between representation and reality, but it also achieves a clarity or
simplicity that implies that documentaries achieve direct, truthful
access to the real. This functions as one of the prime attractions
of the form
(24-25).


B. Community of Practitioners
Documentary filmmakres share a common, self-chosen mandate
to represent the historical world rather than to imaginatively invent
alternative ones....The documentary tradition relies heavily on being
able to convey to us the impression of authenticity...that what we see
bears witness to the way the world is (25, xiii).

C. Corpus of Texts
Norms and conventions come into play for documentary that help distinguish
it: the use of a voice-of-God commentary, interviews, location sound recordings,
cutaways from a given scene to provide images that illustrate or complicate a
point made within the scene, and a reliance on social actors, or people in their
everyday roles and activities, as the central characters of the film are among
those that are common....Another convention is the prevalence of an informing
logic that organizes the film....typical is that of problem solving (26).


D. Constituency of Viewers
The sense that a film is a documentary lies in the mind of the beholder as
much as it lies in the film's context or structure....Most fundamentally, we
bring an assumption that the text's sounds and images have their origin
in the historical world we share...not conceived and produced exclusively
for the film (35).

V. Additional Sources:
Kevin Mcdonald and Mark Cousins' 1996 Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary;
William Rothman's 1997 Documentary Film Classics;
Alan Rosenthal and John Corner's 2005 (2nd edition) of New Challenges for Documentary 

tensions between documentary’s artistic ambitions and imperative
to "show the world" have been present since its origin

landmark documentaries all involve a camera penetrating an ostensibly alien region,
w/out envisioning a way back: there is no world outside the world on film

early cinema divided into two camps: real world subject matter, and filmed performances
cf. contrivance and control in Edison's first fiction film, Fred Ott’s Sneeze,
w/ the work of the Lumiere brothers, who made vignettes from everyday life
observers were struck by the rustling foliage, the movement of waves:
they were accustomed to theater, but not a mirror of a past reality, the "spontaneous essence of life"

1895-1903: majority of films were "actualities" (indiscriminate subjects, lots of movement);
fiction films were rare, but with development of fictional techniques,
films of unmanipulated reality seemed dull, lacking strong narrative and characters,
and became much less popular

in the silent period, proto-documentary makers were forced to the film extremes
of human experience: going to war or exotic corners of the globe

first satisfactory synthesis adapting editing style and dramatic structure
to real life was classic 1922 documentary, Nanook of the North: tension
built up around question of survival

all documentary filmmakers claimed its inheritance;
made before distinction of “documentary film” was made,
with many actions performed for camera:
“Eskimos were knowing actors and active collaborators”

way of life portrayed as timeless, when it and environment are under threat
(film sponsored by fur company)
real people are always actors (we play the characters we, others imagine us to be)

after 1917, Soviets considered film the most modern and objective art form,
least encumbered w/ bourgeoise associations; in the two decades after the
Revolution, there was unprecedented government support for filmmaking

Lenin recognized it as a tool for communication and propaganda: the
need to educate illiterate peasants, who spoke dozens of different languages,
in the basic tenets of communism, to set into motion the enormous
socio-political changes of the Revolution

were factual or fiction films best suited to re-education and agitation?
“The Leninist Film Proportion” specified that a certain percentage
of all film production be factual (fiction films were "opiates")

the avant garde also found its way to film: cubism and futurism
were fascinated w/  modern, mechanical, rhythmic celluloid
experimentation; these were apolitical films, taking as their
subject matter was the automized environment of cities,
factories as their subject matter

the term "documentary" was the self-conscious creation,
in the 1930s, of John Grierson, who had a Scottish Calvinist
distrust of sin of play-acting and entertainment
(vs. the "fresh art of observation and reality")

he also had a Marxist concern for community, believing that
the only worthwhile cinema factual and useful:
“I look on cinema as a pulpit and use it as a propagandist”

the pervasiveness of his ideas about documentary as a
tool for social betterment has meant that the diverse
imaginative possibilities of the form have been underestimated,
and documentary films were thereafter largely a medium
for propaganda (Nazis recognized its power; in WWII,
Allied powers made training films, both to provide soldiers
with psychological preparation, sustain civilian morale)

Asia initially filmed by outsiders; gradual emergence of
authentic Asian voices in post-war era, w/ new forms and
styles from Asian philosophies, aesthetics; consider the
great film industries of India, Japan, China and Hong Kong,
and the work of anti-ethnographer Trinh T. Minh-ha,
read interestingly as a descendent of Flaherty

the 1950s rejected this restrictive notion of “social betterment”:
documentary was seen as a means to express strong personal
opinions and points of view; emerging belief in documentary
filmmakers’ social obligation to NOT be objective led to intellectually
elite  “essay films” (such as Orson Welles’ F for Fake)

shift to 16mm in the ‘60s meant revolutionary technical innovations
in sound and camera equipment: more mobile cameras meant
increased access and fluidity of shooting; needing less light
meant new spontaneity and freedom in filming; portable sound
recording, synchronic w/ the picture, opened the floodgates
to direct cinema, cinema verite and observational documentaries

lead to increasing creation of the documentary in the editing room,
and a more colloquial personal voice

the new aesthetic rejected a glossy “professional” aesthetic
for the values of immediacy, intimacy and “the real"
(flaws were desirable: they guaranteed authenticity)

there were different answers to questions about film-maker
intervention (the French specialized in interviews;
Americans radically opposed them, believing in recording
w/out influencing reality: they chose subjects so involved
that they forgot the camera); codified and puritanical
commandments emerged, as the revolution became a style choice

the common idea about documentaries are that
they are boring films about social problems
(documentary as “discourse of sobriety”)


although traditional left-wing social documentary had real
aesthetic power and social impact, and was motivated by
a noble ambition to change the world (ex: Michael Moore),
a newer generation of filmmakers reacted against the
perception of preachiness, and looked for more
imaginative, challenging, visually stimulating styles

documentary is less constrained now by ideological and aesthetic dogmas:
there are more varied, imaginative, challenging films that are educational,
informative, and unashamedly entertaining;
this shift in terms of
engagement followed from an intensified market for entertainment

the non-linear interactive properties of the web have created new possibilities,
but are also an obstacle to public “confrontation” that happens when a 
viewer lacks many immediately available options for negotiating their
route through the material: they just have to look and listen;
this extends inclusiveness, but does it divert rather than inform and challenge?

there's an increasing willingness to challenge the boundaries between
documentary and fiction, w/ documentary seen now as a statement of attitude,
not content:
images no longer have a definite, secure relation to actuality,
but are known to be liable to digital manipulation and distortion, to provide
access to, escape from, or neglect of aspects of the real world; the role of
documentary in providing “evidence” is now very much open to question;
so what other justifications are there for making these films?